ONE OF THE world’s best-known sustainability standards has been criticised by academics for being “too lenient”.
A team of researchers analysed the formal objections that have been made to the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) in the past few years and concluded that the standard’s “principles for sustainable fishing are too lenient and discretionary, and allow for overly generous interpretation by third-party certifiers”. With this in mind, the authors wrote, the MSC label “may be misleading both consumers and conservation funders”.
In the past few years the MSC certification scheme has become a popular choice for caterers seeking to improve the sustainability of their seafood procurement.
In a detailed rebuttal, the MSC claimed the study’s authors “misunderstand the intention of the objection procedure” and “fail to capture the wide range of benefits associated with a participatory and transparent objection process”.
Objections are heard by an independent adjudicator appointed by the MSC. In all but one of the 19 cases analysed in the research, the certification was upheld. The researchers wanted to determine whether these fisheries met the MSC's principles for certification; in “many cases” they did not.
"When consumers want sustainable fish there are two options to meet the demand: fisheries can become more sustainable or the definition of sustainable can be watered down to be practically meaningless –with MSC seafood, the definition has been repeatedly watered down," said Jennifer Jacquet, a clinical assistant professor in New York University's Environmental Studies Programme, and one of 11 authors of the study, which appears in the journal Biological Conservation.
The authors concluded that the MSC scheme needs to enforce the principles it created for certified fisheries. Otherwise, they wrote, consumers believe they are buying "the best environmental choice" in seafood, when in fact there is a very good chance they are not.
The MSC defended its system as robust. The rebuttal read:
“The authors argue that certifiers inflate scores while performing the MSC assessments and that the low number of objections is the result of a bureaucratic and costly process. However, the authors overlooked the third-party nature of the programme and the participatory character of the process.
“They further imply the objection procedure is ineffective because only one has resulted in failing the assessment while the others have resulted in upholding certification. But even if upheld, 9 of the 19 certifications have received remands that have resulted in 13 new conditions, while the rest have had their scores lowered and many recommendations on improvements raised.”